War is hard on the human body. Explosions, shrapnel and gunfire are unique in the trauma they inflict, particularly to the head. They also produce injuries that dramatically change lives.
“If a soldier loses a leg, he can get a prosthesis and his injury isn’t as evident. But with trauma to the head and face, that’s another story entirely,” says Scott Guelcher, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
Since his undergraduate days at Virginia Tech, Guelcher has been on the developing edge of the design, synthesis and characterization of polymers and related materials. The promise these materials and Guelcher’s research hold for improving the lives of people with injuries and cancer fuels his passion and provides multiple avenues for exploration.
Restoring Faces and Lives
In collaboration with the U.S. Army and civilian medical companies, Guelcher is developing a polymer solution for injuries. The goal is to create biodegradable polyurethane biomaterials that substitute for bone and encourage new bone growth.
Via five-year grants under the Army’s Orthopaedic Trauma Research Program and the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Guelcher is working to rapidly bring to market these polymer-based biomaterials. “One of the most important goals is developing materials that can heal devastating injuries to the face,” Guelcher says. In past wars, soldiers with such injuries died. With modern medical treatment, they live, but the options for rebuilding bone and restoring a normal appearance and function are inadequate.
“Currently if damage to the skull isn’t too large, a type of calcium phosphate cement can be applied. For larger injuries, where more bone is missing, they can manufacture replacement parts with plastic or metals,” Guelcher says.
The problem with these tried-and-true solutions is that the materials don’t integrate well with the human body. They break and carry a high risk of infection. “The Army charged us with developing something that is more mechanically robust,” says Guelcher.
“Men and women whose lives have been saved face difficult recovery. The Army is allocating extensive resources to regenerative medicine to improve the quality of life of wounded soldiers,” Guelcher says. He recalls a soldier whose jaw was damaged in combat. “He told the surgeon if they could just repair his injury so his tongue would stay in his mouth, his life would be better.”
Guelcher’s work has potential for civil medical needs as well. “The materials we are developing have applicability to civilian orthopedic trauma and metastatic bone disease, where the bone removed or damaged must be regenerated,” Guelcher says. “Orthopedic companies will, I believe, continue to invest in development of new therapies to regenerate bone.”
In addition to the military grant, Guelcher has a five-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER grant that dovetails with the Army’s fast-track product mandate. “The basic science that leads to understanding and practical application, that’s the space I’m working in,” he explains. “I’m looking at the fundamentals of polymeric biomaterials using in vitro cell culture techniques to get a better understanding of the biology and mechanisms involved, and how to accelerate and control the integrative and regenerative processes.”
Guelcher’s NSF work incorporates content for two undergraduate courses. Concurrently he’ll develop curricula on bioprocess engineering and regenerative medicine for students in grades 9–12. These materials will be used at the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, a part-time public high school joint venture with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
“Students don’t get exposed to engineering in high school, so many of them don’t consider engineering as a profession,” he says. His own taste for chemical engineering was whetted at a science and math high school he attended in Fairfax County, Va.
Guelcher’s journey from budding chemical engineer has included jobs with Eastman Chemical Co., where he worked on polymer intermediates, and Bayer Corp.’s polyurethanes division. He holds 12 patents in areas that include bioprocess-engineered products, polyurethane intermediates and polymers that have medical applications.
Guelcher says his move in 2002 from industry to academia has opened new avenues and opportunities to take his work deeper. “The great thing about Vanderbilt is you get to meet all kinds of people, internationally recognized experts who are collegial and willing to hear about new ideas,” says Guelcher, who earned advanced degrees and did postdoctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
In one collaborative project, Guelcher collaborates with Dr. Greg Mundy, professor of medicine, pharmacology, orthopaedics and cancer biology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. They are exploring the creation and use of artificial substrates to imitate the stiffness of bone and also softer structures such as breast, lung and liver tissue.
“Scott’s work has been valuable to us in trying to understand why some tumors grow so well in bone,” says Mundy, the John A. Oates Chair in Translational Medicine and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Bone Biology. “Stiffness makes tumor cells more aggressive. Scott’s artificial substrates have enabled us to understand the role the rigidity of bone plays in influencing how tumor cells behave.”
Beyond the shared clinical pursuit, Mundy says Guelcher brings a perspective and personal style that fosters a productive lab and creative thinking.
“Scott is smart, even in areas where he isn’t trained. And he has insights that differ from ours, so through him, we get a fresh look at the work,” Mundy says. The physician says he particularly values Guelcher’s industry experience in moving work through patenting and the Food and Drug Administration approval processes. “He has good instincts. When we’ve confirmed what the problems are, he’s good at picking the directions that are blind alleys and the ones that are the right way to go.”
Guelcher is also part of a team headed by Dr. Alissa Weaver, assistant professor of cancer biology. He applies his expertise with polymer-based models to advancing her work on the link between dense breast tissue, the rapid progression of cancer and its metastasis to bone.
“Scott is a collaborative person. There’s a natural application to the work he does and he’s willing to get out of his lab to do it,” Weaver says. When Guelcher needed a rheometer to test the substrates he’d developed for her cancer research, Weaver says he wrote a mini-grant to use a device at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory located several hours away. He then went along to supervise the testing. “He’s a hands-on person,” she says.
“Some people come up with ideas that violate the laws of physics. Scott’s full of neat ideas, and each one has merit.”
~ John L. Anderson
President, Illinois Institute of Technology
Illinois Institute of Technology President John L. Anderson affirms Weaver and Mundy’s assessments of Guelcher. “Scott’s a very creative guy,” says Anderson, who was Guelcher’s mentor at Carnegie Mellon. “He’s always looking for applications for his theoretical work. Some people come up with ideas that violate the laws of physics. Scott’s full of neat ideas, and each one has merit.
“He’s a valuable person in an academic setting because he’s creative but also good at theory and fundamentals. At the same time, his experience in industry leads him to always be looking for practical applications,” Anderson says. “He has an excellent understanding of the need for the balance of application and theory, plus the mental horsepower to get it done.”
Lessons from Industry
Guelcher says that working in industry taught him to refine ideas in the early stages. “I learned early if you can’t reduce your work to something that makes products and money, no one cares,” Guelcher says. “Here at Vanderbilt, that’s translated to bringing scientific knowledge to solve problems while filtering out the constraints and creating a system you can deal with.”
He says he was drawn to Vanderbilt by the School of Engineering’s stature as well as the opportunity to raise his family in the South. Guelcher and his wife, Karyn, a native of North Carolina, have six children.
His industry experience also helped him hone his people skills, which translate well to mentoring graduate students. “I had numerous mentors who taught me the importance of thinking beforehand about what you’ll say and how the other person may hear it,” Guelcher says. “Similarly, with students, you have to refine your approach, to expect mistakes while also tempering your expectations.
“As a mentor, you’re teaching them what it means to be a good colleague and to interact with others in a constructive way. It’s rewarding when you see them change over time from someone who you have to tell what to do to the point where they are successfully solving problems you never thought of.”